The only engineering facility built expressly to test self-driving vehicles officially opens Wednesday at the historic 335-acre Willow Run site just west of Detroit.
The American Center for Mobility will be home to automakers, suppliers and other groups developing technology for autonomous vehicles and smart infrastructure. It provides unrivaled facilities to test self-driving vehicles, just as public concern over the technology crescendos after a pedestrian was killed by an autonomous car this month.
“The fatal accident involving a self-driving Uber in Arizona clearly illustrates the need for intensive testing and validation of autonomous vehicles before they go out on public roads,” said Cox Automotive senior analyst Michelle Krebs.
A number of companies have already run test laps at ACM, including Toyota, which was proudly first on track.
“This technology will revolutionize transportation, and ACM is the only facility in the United States purposely designed for the testing and development of automated and connected vehicles,” ACM President and CEO John Maddox said.
“Companies can conduct tests here that they know are unsafe on public roads: What happens if the safety systems fail? We can re-create scenarios at the proving ground that are not safe for public roads.”
That virtually guarantees that automakers, suppliers and tech companies from around the world will beat a path to Willow Run.
The sprawling facility has a 2.5-mile highway loop, a 700-foot curved tunnel, two double overpasses, intersections, traffic circles and more. It provides controlled conditions for tests away from the public. Every inch of road is connected to a fiber-optic network to collect data and so vehicles can communicate with each other, traffic signals and more. ACM also has proprietary WiFi and cellular networks
The center will also include a simulation center with dazzling computer power, the details of which are still secret.
“This will be a hub where we can interact with government agencies and other automakers on things that require vehicle-to-vehicle communication — like platooning,” when a pack of vehicles travels in tight formation at speeds higher than possible with individual drivers, said Andy Freels, president of the nearby Hyundai America Tech Center Inc., or HATCI. Hyundai contributed $5 million to be one of the center’s founding sponsors.
“ACM will have the latest roadside units to communicate with vehicles about road conditions, weather, lane repairs … all the things we need to understand to build a network where vehicles talk to each other and the infrastructure.
“It will also let us test advanced driver assistance and safety features and electrified vehicles.”
Michigan’s four-season climate is an asset that other areas can’t match.
“The range of weather we have has great value to testers,” Maddox said. “We’ve already tested in bright sun, snow and fog.” Some of the center’s roads were designed specifically to see how vehicles behave when early morning and late-afternoon sun can blind digital cameras.
The site includes part of old U.S. 12 and much of the footprint of the historic WWII bomber plant at which Ford built B-24 bombers and became a symbol of Detroit’s reputation as the Arsenal of Democracy..
“The opening of the American Center for Mobility is another sign that Michigan is preparing to lead the way to future mobility,” said Jeff Makarewicz, director of Toyota’s nearby tech center. “We were honored to be the first automaker to join ACM as a founding sponsor to help create a test ground for advanced vehicle technologies right here in our backyard.” The state of Michigan, Ypsilanti Township and other agencies cooperated to create ACM, which also has agreements with 15 Michigan universities.
The other founding sponsors are Ford, AT&T and Visteon. Any company can test at the facility, but the founders will have long-term presences, offices and garages. Subaru donated $2 million for a lower-tier sponsorship, and other companies are certain to join ACM won’t say what other companies have already used the facility.
ACM has raised $110 million of its $135 million goal. Construction began in November 2016. The next phase will include an urban driving environment and a tech park.
Self-driving cars are the auto industry’s future, unless accidents like the one in Arizona derail it. The ACM exists to develop the technology, test it safely and gain the public’s trust.